When a heatwave hit, a lazy day relaxing by natural springs in northern Israel was just what the doctor ordered.
The area known as the Beit She’an Valley, more recently rebranded as the “Valley of Springs”, is, on the face of it, not an ideal place to live. It’s the hottest part of Israel—a combination of its altitude (over 100m, or 300ft below sea level) and its basalt rock, which absorbs the heat.
Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi, a farming collective located in the valley, holds the record for the hottest recorded temperature in Asia for a year-round settlement, clocking in 54C (129F). And yet, throughout history, people have lived and thrived in this area. In fact, under Roman rule, Beit She’an (or Scythopolis, as it was then known) was the regional capital.
What made this possible? The ready supply of fresh water. In addition to a couple of year-round streams, the geology of the area contributed to the formation of a plethora of springs. Combined with the fertile soil, it became a place where people could flourish.
Last October, after a gruelling few months of lockdown, and during a harsh heatwave, my wife and I decided to take a day to ourselves and drove up to the area to cool off in nature. We specifically chose to go during the week—during the weekend these places are normally packed.
We began our day in the appropriately named “Park of Springs” site. While many of the springs require a bit of work to find, this is an organised site that collects together three springs and associated streams, with trails connecting them and helpful signage and facilities. Entry to the site is free, but you can pay to hire bicycles, golf carts or to deposit valuables in a locker.
Given the heat, we splashed out on a golf cart and spent a wonderful few hours in the park. We drove between springs, alternatively dipping ourselves in the refreshing water, cooling off in the shade, and enjoying the picnic we’d picked up from one of our favourite bakeries on our drive north.
There are fish pools in the park, owned by the local kibbutz. October is the beginning of the big annual bird migration across Israel, with half a billion birds flying in from Europe and Asia to head down to warmer climes on the African continent. We were able to spot a whole flock of pelicans in the pools, quite majestic animals.
One thing we didn’t have time for was the Kibbutzim Stream water hike. It’s located in the park, and with the water going quite deep at parts, can become more of a swim than a hike. I’ll have to get back there to give it a go.
Having enjoyed the park, we set off on our way home, via a stop at a different spring, in the Jezreel Valley. The Harod Spring is mentioned in the Bible, in one of my favourite stories. Detailed in Judges 7, Gideon takes his Israelite warriors to the spring ahead of a major battle with the Midianites. In what I sometimes jokingly refer to as the first HR assessment centre, he invites them to drink, and then selects his fighters based on the result. You can read the full story here.
Today, the Harod Spring is a national park in a beautiful setting. There is an entry fee, but the advantage is that it was even more peaceful and relaxed than the Park of the Springs. We spent another good couple of hours relaxing in and out of the water, and just enjoying nature after so long stuck in the city. You can read more about the Harod Spring from when I visited it on the tour guide course.
Sadly, it was time to head home, but we made time for a couple of culinary stops. First, for a yummy early supper at Maklot Vanil in Afula, and then to pick up some crisp, fresh and very reasonably priced veggies from the Carmelim farm shop in Yogev.
All in all, a wonderfully relaxing day in nature, with some delicious treats to boot.
Mt Hermon is the highest peak in Israel, reaching 2 040m (6690ft) above sea level. It’s a perfect location for a summer hike, providing you can plan a bit in advance.
A couple of months ago, in the middle of the summer, I suddenly found myself with a completely free day for myself at short notice. With all the Corona-chaos I hadn’t had an opportunity to do any guiding for some months, and was missing being in the field. I thought it would be a great opportunity to do a hike.
I really enjoy hiking, and although you might think I do a lot of it as a tour guide, it’s actually quite unusual with the type of visitors I normally work with. Most of my clients are coming for no more than a week and they want to pack in as much as possible – so taking a few hours from the schedule for a hike is not normally an option. It does happen here and there, but also tends to be the same trails that are close to other sites of interest or perhaps have some specific historical or religious context.
So, this was an opportunity to do a hike for me. Unfortunately, the Israeli summer is not best-designed for walking outdoors. Temperatures easily hit the mid-30s (that’s the mid-90s for our American friends) even in the cooler parts of the country. And certain areas can be extremely humid. I’d have to start quite early in the morning for a hike to even be feasible. There were other restrictions – I was on my own so would need to do a circular trail (it’s quite common to walk in one direction and then hitchhike back to where you parked your car – but in Corona times I didn’t think that was sensible). Additionally, on some trails there’s no guarantee your car will be there when you return. I needed to get some advice.
So I turned to Steve of Finjan. Steve and I did the tour guide course together, and became good friends. Although he guides general visitors like I do, together with another member of our course he’s also developed a successful business specialising on off the beaten track travel in Israel, with a particular focus on hiking. I told him my criteria and he suggested that I hike the Hermon – the highest mountain in Israel, on the Syrian and Lebanese border.
I hadn’t thought of travelling that far, but he really sold it to me – particularly because it would be a lot cooler than anywhere else in the country due to the elevation, which in the peak of the summer is a major incentive. I’d been up the Hermon a few times, but never on foot, and the challenge was appealing. It’s not simple to do – you need to get permission from the army because of its proximity to the border. But Steve talked me through the process, my permission came through, and all was set.
So, a couple of days later, at 6.30am I was driving out of Tel Aviv and heading north. It was a wonderful drive, against the traffic, and just under three hours later I was driving through the Druze town of Majdal Shams on the Israel/Syrian border, and on the slopes of the Hermon. At this point, my heart began to sink. The town was enveloped in thick fog. Had I come all this way to hike in the mist? But I was there now, and I was rewarded for pushing on as I continued to ascend towards the beginning of the trail, eventually bursting through the fog to enjoy a stunningly clear view over the Golan Heights, the Hula Valley and the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. I literally shouted for joy! It really was quite remarkable.
I arrived at the beginning of the trail and the soldier at the gate let me through thanks to the approval I’d secured. I began to climb, pausing every now and again to enjoy the beautiful scenery, the solitude and also because it was quite a steep ascent – so I need to catch my breath! The trail was well marked and in about an hour I was at the top. It was glorious, and thanks to the relatively early time of day, almost completely empty. I had the views to myself and it was a very pleasant 24C (75F), so much nicer than the relentless humidity of Israel’s centre.
The Hermon is mentioned on multiple occasions in the Bible (sometimes by its other names: Mt Snir, Siryon or Sion). It stands out from a distance and clearly commanded respect and a sense of mysticism. Indeed some (minority) opinions identify it as the real Mt Sinai or even the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Whether or not this is the case, both on the approach and from the top, the mountain emanates a sense of awe. It felt very special to be there.
You don’t have to hike to enjoy the views from the top – there is also a chairlift and, more recently, a cable car – neither of which require army approval. The Hermon is the only place in Israel that you can ski (at the right time of year) and these mainly serve the skiers – there’s not a huge amount to do up there in the summer other than enjoy the views. Only 7% of the Hermon is in Israeli hands (taken from Syria in 1967) – the majority of it is in Syria and a small part is in Lebanon. So the areas you can explore up there are quite restricted.
Steve had suggested that I hike up and take the cable car down, but there was some rather disturbing news awaiting me at the top of the mountain – the cable car was broken… They were trying to fix it and “hopefully” it would be working soon. Fortunately, I did have a way to pass the time – there is a further trail at the top of the mountain, requiring separate army approval, that allows you to wander a bit further.
I took this trail, exploring the area of a major battle in the Yom Kippur war, and reaching the symbolic start point for the Israel Trail – a renowned hiking route that all the way from Israel’s north to its south. When I originally ascended the Hermon, I had views into Israel and Lebanon, from this side I could see deep into Syria. I wandered as far as I was allowed (the army only approved me to go on part of this trail) before enjoying a picnic lunch and venturing back cable car with fingers firmly crossed. Fortunately, they had fixed it and I was able to avoid punishing my knees by attempting to descend the way I came.
By now it was around 12.30 – and it seemed a shame to already head home. I then remembered that it was berry season in the Golan, and so headed to the Bereishit orchards to do some fruit picking for the family. I left with boxes full of fresh blackberries, blueberries, plums and nectarines. Delicious.
And there was still time, so I popped into an old favourite – the De Karina chocolate factory in Ein Zivan, for one of their famous milkshakes and to pick up some treats to take home.
I got back around 4.30pm, exhausted but exhilarated. When guiding, there’s so much to think about all the time – some logistical thing, some calls you need to make, answering questions – you don’t have that much time to enjoy the places you’re visiting as the tourists do. This was a day where I sort of guided myself, and was able to really appreciate the scenery, the sights, sounds and smells, in a much more personal way. It was wonderful!
If you’re ever looking for a great hike in the Israeli summer, I can’t recommend the Hermon enough. Here’s what you should think about when planning your trip:
– As with any hike: bring appropriate footwear, hat, water, a trail map and particularly sunscreen – the elevation on the Hermon means the sun’s rays are much stronger. Bring enough water to hike in both directions in case of another cable car malfunction.
– Even in the summer it can be cold at the top depending on the winds and cloud cover – so have a jumper/sweater in your bag.
– Make sure to get permission from the army enough in advance – this is a lot easier to do with a tour guide.
It is the perfect time of year for hiking, pleasantly warm without being hot, and with the trees in full autumn bloom. So it made sense to take advantage of this and to head up north to hike in Nachal Amud (the Amud Stream), one of the classic hikes of northern Israel.
First, came the descent into Nachal Meiron, which flows down from the area of Mt Meiron. On route, we passed the ruins of a British police station, built to protect some of the springs in the area. We continued down the path, passing the remains of an aqueduct and also remnants of terrace farming, which has been restored to an extent to show visitors what the area would have looked like when it was actively farmed.
We continued our descent through a beautiful canopy of autumn leaves, reaching Nachal Amud, and continuing further along the stream before the trail began to loop back on its other bank.
During our ascent, we bumped into a posse of photographers; it transpires that journalist Shimon Shiffer, whose normal focus is politics and diplomacy, was doing a feature on the Israel National Trail which traverses the country from north to south; part of the trail runs along Nachal Amud. We had a nice chat and he assured me that he would pass on my regards to the British Ambassador.
We returned to the beginning of the hike, but our day was just beginning; having driven all the way up north we were determined to make the most of our time! A short drive took us to the ancient synagogue of Bar’am, one of many ruins of synagogues in the north dating to the Byzantine period.
We then drove along the stunning road that runs along the Lebanese border into the Naftali heights, which offers astonishing views into the Hula Valley. After a brief stop at Tel Kedesh, and a visit to the most complete example of a Roman Temple in the country, we continued our descent to our final destination of the day, the Agamon Lake.
We are in the middle of the migration season in Israel, where millions of birds use the country as a corridor between Europe/Asia and Africa in their search for food as the northern hemisphere cools for the winter. The Agamon offers the opportunity to see many of these birds, and at the moment there are tens of thousands of cranes in the area. Although it is possible to explore independently, we booked onto a guided tour which takes you into areas which it is impossible to access on your own. The noise of the cranes was deafening, and it was amazing to see so many of them and to be so close. We also saw many animals and birds during the trip, including nutrias (large rodents with vicious teeth), gulls, coots, ducks, pelicans and remarkably a wild boar. It was a fantastic trip and highly recommended, particularly at this time of year.
After enjoying the sunset over the valley, it was time for us to return home, after a varied and most entertaining day out.
The Israeli tour guide course is long, intense and covers a huge amount of information. However, it can’t possibly cover everything, so there are still parts of the country for me to explore, and I take great pleasure in doing so!
A reasonably important one is the area of the Yehudiya Nature Reserve in the Golan Heights. There are many trails here and unusually for Israel all of them have water all year around, which is great when you are looking to cool off in the heat of the summer.
With a friend arriving who has a passion for hiking, it was a great excuse to get up north to the reserve. I picked him up from Ben Gurion Airport at 6.45am and just two hours later we were slapping on our sun cream as we prepared to hike around the upper part of the Zavitan stream, a particularly popular trail that I shall definitely need to know for the future.
As we set off, we were somewhat unimpressed by the lack of shade (with the sun already beginning to reach high temperatures. However, we soon began to reach some pleasant little creeks which provided some respite.
Continuing further, we hit the real attraction, a series of pools surrounded by basalt columns that are in various stages of erosion. The columns, caused by physical forces at work in the cooling of lava when the basalt was formed, exist in quite a few parts of the Golan, most famously at the ‘Hexagon Pool’, a little north west of us in the Yehudiya Reserve.
The site was crowded although we still found some space for a quick dip, and then continued down-stream where we found a smaller but undisturbed pool which was much more peaceful and to my mind rather more beautiful.
Continuing down the trail led us to a lovely view of a waterfall, although no doubt it is much more impressive after the winter rains. It was possible to descend down to the waterfall and bathe in the pool into which it plunged (probably less appealing after the winter rains!) and there were plenty of people taking advantage of this opportunity to cool off.
All in all, a very pleasant option for a short hike in the Golan, while incorporating some opportunities to cool off in the stream. I am sure I will be back in Yehudiya before long to explore some of the other trails, including the water hike!
Most of you will be aware of the current situation in Israel, which is far from easy. Still, we feel the need to keep calm and carry on (to borrow a cliche) as best as we can. Last week I took a couple of friends on a trip up to the north of the country, and we made a lunch time stop at the famous Mifgash Golani falafel restaurant in Afula.
While the falafel is tasty, this place is more famous for the falafel acrobatics performed by the staff. It really is remarkably impressive. Well worth a visit!
A strange atmosphere today, a sense of nearing the end, as we began our penultimate tour of the course. Today’s trip was dedicated to the settlement of the Jordan Valley (or specifically the area around the Sea of Galilee), with a diversion via the Harod spring which we had not managed to visit previously.
On the one hand, a palpable sense of relief in the air – we have nearly made it! On the other, tension and concern as the final exams approach. And a mix of nostalgia – we have gone through a lot together.
Our day began, as mentioned, at the Harod Spring, located on the slopes of the Gilboa mountain. We visited the house built by Yehoshua Hankin, who was responsible for purchasing a great deal of the land that eventually became part of Israel – around 1000 square kilometres (that’s around 250 000 acres), including the majority of the Jezreel and Harod valleys. The house has recently been restored and has a short film about the life of Hankin – the film is a bit dated but the story is very impressive.
We then descended to the Harod spring itself, the site of the biblical story where Gideon selected his warriors based on their drinking style, before going out to vanquish the marauding Midianites.
Leaving the biblical period behind us, we drove east to the site of ‘Old Gesher’, which until 1948 was the Gesher kibbutz. Gesher means bridge and here are three bridges over the Jordan river, with one dating to the Roman period (with Mamluk repairs on top). The border with Jordan runs right down the middle of the river and we descended to the river (under the watchful eye of the nearby Jordanian border position) to check out the bridges and hear about the battle for the site in 1948.
Nearby are the ruins of the Naharayim hydroelectric plant, the first such structure in the Middle East and a remarkable feat of engineering for the time. Built across the border of what was then the Mandate of Palestine and Transjordan, it was an example of the cooperation between the early Zionists and King Abdullah of Jordan; sadly this did not last past the 1948 war and ever since it has been lying in ruins. The electricity company have built a small interactive museum about the plant; I had low expectations but it really was rather good.
From Gesher, we headed north to the Kinneret ‘courtyard’. Here the World Zionist Organisation established a training farm at the beginning of the 20th century, to help all the young and eager pioneers learn how to farm the land before going out to set up for themselves. The passionate and ideological young socialists who arrived here formed the backbone of what was to be the future state; indeed it was here that institutions such as the kibbutz; institutions such as the Hagana, Hamashbir and the Labour Union first sprouted.
One of the most famous inhabitants is Rachel Bluwstein (normally just referred to as Rachel or Rachel the Poet), a young pioneer who led a short and tragic life, leaving behind here a large amount of beautiful poems, many of which have become part of the Israeli literary and indeed musical canon.
Speaking of the kibbutz, our next stop was slightly further south at Umm Juni. In 1910 a small group of socialist ideologues arrived here, having been offered the land by the WZO. Remarkably, through their revolutionary communal living model, they were able to make a profit in the first year. And so the first kibbutz was born, established just next to the area called Umm Juni, and named Deganya.
We headed back north, to the site known as the Motor House. The building housed a pump that irrigated the surrounding fields, but of more interest was the story of the Yemenite immigrants who were housed here after moving to Israel in around 1912. They were eventually moved on in order to allow graduates of the Kinneret farm to establish a new communal settlement on the land, and a significant proportion of the group were not happy to leave. The story only became public knowledge in the past 15 years or so and caused quite a big deal of controversy in Israel.
We walked from the Motor House to the shore of the Sea of Galilee and our final site for the day, the Kinneret Cemetery. In a beautiful shaded setting next to Israel’s largest freshwater lake is housed the pantheon of Labour Zionists, the graves of Berl Katznelson, Rachel, Moses Hess, Nachman Syrkin, to name just a few. Together with these are some tragic stories associated with the struggle of the pioneers to adjust to their new environment; or on a completely different note, the grave of Naomi Shemer, the singer of ‘Jerusalem of Gold’, who was born at Kinneret.
We began our drive home to Tel Aviv, and in addition to the other emotions of the morning, we all began to feel a certain amount of nostalgia. Just one more tour remains, and it should be quite a fun one. What is the destination? You will have to wait until next week to find out!
Today’s tour was a very nostalgic one as I returned to the northern city of Tzefat (also known as Safed), where I lived for three months while on my gap year in Israel. I had a great time in Tzefat where I lived with a group of friends and volunteered in the local community. To a certain extent, my return felt like I was coming home.
However, as always on the guiding course, I was surprised by how many of the local sites I was completely unaware of while living here. We began our day at the Akhbara viewpoint, a lookout over the modern day Arab village which was a Jewish settlement in the 2nd temple period. We heard how Napoleon’s soldiers reached here during is 18th century campaign, in a fruitless search for the treasures of the Jewish temple in the nearby cliff face. We also gazed with awe upon the highest bridge in the middle east, over the Amud river bed, which has been engineered especially to withstand even major earthquakes (which do happen in our region).
We continued up to the city of Tzefat, passing through and arriving at Mt Canaan. Here, from a vantage point over Tzefat itself, we heard the story of the city during the 1948 Arab Israeli War. It is a very dramatic tale and I shall not attempt to do it justice here; I look forward to retelling it to tourists in the future!
From here we headed into the city of Tzefat itself, and after brief stops in the more modern town we entered the area of the Old City. For Jews, Tzefat is one of the four holy cities of Israel (together with Jerusalem, Hebron and Tiberias). Beginning in the 16th century, here developed many of the ideas that make up the Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism; on the other hand (and even in contrast) it was here that the Shulchan Aruch, the definitive codification of Jewish Law, was written.
We began our visit at the Ashkenaz Synagogue of the Ari. Known as a leading kabbalist (mystic) despite his brief time in Tzefat, he is credited with creating the kabbalat shabbat service which to this day is recited in synagogues around the world on Friday evenings. Tradition says that at the site of the synagogue, he would go out into the fields around Tzefat on Friday nights to welcome the Sabbath Queen, together with his followers. We learned about the history of the synagogue and some of the miracles believed to have taken place within it.
Moving on, we descended into recent excavations of parts of the city covered under rubble in an 18th century earthquake. We found a 17th century mikve (ritual bath) and then descended further into a large, probably communal, structure from the 16th century. Perhaps this was frequented by some of the leading kabbalists of the time?
Our next stop was at the Synagogue of Rabbi Yitzchak Abuhav. He was a leading rabbi and mystic in Spain in the 15th century, although he was never in Tzefat in person. In one of the arks in the synagogue is a torah scroll written by Rabbi Abuhav, who dipped himself in a mikve 26 times each time he had to write the name of God. It is considered so special that it is only used three times a year.
As we continued through the alleyways of the Old City, our guide entertained us with a myriad of stories about various miracles that have happened in Tzefat over the centuries. Eventually we reached our final synagogue for the day, that of Rabbi Josef Caro, the great scholar who wrote the Shulchan Aruch.
After a brief look-out over the Tzefat cemetery (which contains the tombs of many of these famous rabbis), we concluded our day on the peak of the hill on which Tzefat is based, dealing with an entirely different topic. Here are the ruins of what was once the largest Crusader citadel in the Middle East, constructed in the 13th century. Later, after the fortress was taken by the Mamluks in their conquest of the area, their leader, Baibars, constructed a huge tower on the site – it was possible to see its ruins and even to wander into its cistern.
The citadel is now part of a park, and I’m not sure the various couples who were spread out among the area to enjoy the sunset particularly appreciated our group passing through. As interesting as the history was, I’m not sure it added to the romantic mood. I’m pleased to say that after the explanations finished, there was just time for us to also enjoy the sunset over Mount Meiron, and the tomb of Shimon Bar Yochai (the original mystic, considered author of the Zohar), before beginning our journey back to Tel Aviv.
Today we travelled north for a tour of the area of what is known as the northern valleys, referred to by many as the Jezreel Valley. The tour was focused on the development of the area in the modern period – this swampy valley was one of the large areas of modern day Israel that the early Zionists were able to purchase from local landowners (they did not want it given the difficulty in farming here). Here, the pioneers developed techniques to drain the land and transform it into prime agricultural real estate; here developed the first kibbutz and the first moshav – the communal agricultural settlements.
First though, we travelled back in time at Tel Yoqneam. Only recently made accessible to the public, this is the remains of a settlement dating to the bronze age (it is mentioned in the bible). The site is still under excavation so presently there is little to see but the ruins of a Crusader church; still the commanding views over the lower Galil make it worth the climb.
A short distance away lies the old train station of Kfar Yehoshua, recently restored and turned into a museum about the Valley Railway. Built in the early 20th century, it helped provide supplies to the construction of the larger Hijazi railway, which connected Istanbul with Mecca, via Jordan. As a by product it served to help develop the area of the lower Galilee. The film in the museum is actually really good (and amusing!) and worth a short stop for all rail enthusiasts.
Work is currently underway to build a new railway in the area, although it will not follow exactly the same route. It is possible to see the work all along the valley; when it will be completed is rather hard to say, however!
A short ride away took us to the moshav of Kfar Yehoshua, named for Yehoshua Hankin, who was responsible for organising a great deal of the land purchase in the area. We learned here about the development of communal living in these early pioneer settlements, which eventually evolved into the kibbutz and moshav that we know today.
It was a beautiful, fresh and sunny day, so we took advantage of the marvellous weather to enjoy a countryside stroll around the area of Tivon. We explored the Mediterranean undergrowth and passed by what is considered to be the oldest Mt Tavor Oak in the country, ironically not situated on Mt Tavor.
Following a spot of perambulation, we ascended to the bus once more to visit two former settlements of the Templer Christians – Bethlehem of Galilee and Waldheim (the latter is now called Alonei Abba). We refreshed ourselves on the Templer movement (having visited their sites previously in Haifa and Tel Aviv) and learned about their later split – some returned to the Protestant Church, as evidenced by the pretty little church in Alonei Abba.
Our next stop was the cemetery of Nahalal, the first moshav. Our guide took us around the tombstones, telling the story of the early years of Israel through the people we encountered. These young, ideological pioneers formed the backbone of Israeli society in its early years. Among the most famous of the Nahalal community was Moshe Dayan, a Defence Minister of Israel with an iconic eye patch. Also buried in the cemetery is Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut. He was not from Nahalal but served at a nearby airport base. Tragically, he is buried next to his son, who died 5 years ago in a plane crash.
After a very brief stop in Nahalal itself, we drove on to Merhavia, not far from Afula. Now the site of both a kibbutz and a moshav, side by side, it was the first modern Jewish settlement in the Jezreel Valley. Over the years they experimented with various forms of communal living, eventually arriving at what they have today – the kibbutz and moshav side by side. The original courtyard of the settlement has been restored and there is a small museum about its history that it is possible to visit.
Our final stop of the day was further north, at Sejera, now called Ilanya. This was really where everything began, in terms of the Jewish settlement of the area in the modern period (you may have noted that chronologically this day was running in reverse!). Funded by Baron Rothschild, Sejera was the site of a training farm for new immigrants. They would come here, learn how to work the land, and then take loans to buy territory, farm it and then pay them back. This model was later adopted by the JNF with the founding of the Kineret Farm (to be visited on a later trip) from which sprouted the first kibbutz.
While we were at the site, we also managed to visit a mikveh (ritual bath) from the Byzantine period, which was used by one of the married pioneers (nearly all were single at this time) for conjugal trysts! As such, it was later named for him…certainly one way to make a name for yourself…
My overall impression from the day was how very impressive these young men and women were. They came to a hostile environment, with no understanding of agriculture, to work land which was so bad that it was the only land available for purchase. Yet, they pushed through the hardships, made the land work for them and created the backbone for the future state. I think the appropriate Hebrew expression is ‘Kol HaKavod’!
With the sun shining on a beautiful January morning we travelled north for today’s tour which was based around the area of the eastern lower Galilee, a small area which roughly speaking is encircled by the roads 71, 90, 85 and 65 (for those trying to locate it on a map).
It is considered distinct from the central Galilee due to its geological make up – steep basalt cliffs formed by ancient volcanic activity (vs the sedimentary rock of the rest of the Galilee region). Our tour today was to be quite varied – as we get towards the end of our time on the course, some of our trips consist of us fitting in some of the sites that we have not yet had a chance to visit despite passing close by (for example during our trips to Tiberias or Christianity around the Sea of Galilee).
We began the day at Mount Arbel, an imposing basalt mountain with a sheer cliff face leading down to the Sea of Galilee. A short walk took us to a stunning viewpoint over the area and our guide helped us locate various sites of interest. We then heard the story of the town Arbel (located close by) during the Jewish revolt against Herod (recently made ruler of the Galilee) in the 1st century BCE. The Jews were soon overwhelmed and hid in caves hidden in the cliff face. To overcome this problem, Herod’s army constructed cages and lowered soldiers down to the caves where the rebels were sitting ducks. Many of them threw themselves to their deaths rather than be taken prisoner.
A short drive took us to the ruins of the Byzantine town of Arbel where it was possible to see the remains of their synagogue. There are many ancient synagogues around the Galilee and Golan (the oldest going back 2000 years) and we learned different theories as to the dating or provenance of different styles of construction.
We then headed west, passing the Horns of Hattin (site of the famous battle in 1187 when Saladin vanquished the Crusaders) and arriving at Nabi Shu’aib. The holiest site for Israeli Druze, it is considered to be the tomb of Jethro, father-in-law of Moses. The tomb complex is now run by Druze although Jewish and Muslim pilgrims (for whom Jethro/Nabi Shu’aib is also a holy figure) are welcome to visit too. It was a nice stop; the Druze were very welcoming and there were lovely views through the Arbel cliff to the Sea of Galilee.
Travelling north, our next stop was at the ruins of ancient Korazim. The earliest source about this site is the New Testament, when Jesus curses it for refusing to heed his teachings. Excavations in the 80s have unearthed most of the Byzantine period settlement, including a large synagogue dated to the 5th century. Interestingly, the synagogue contains some pagan symbols (including an image of Medusa, the character from the Greek myths). This is not unusual in synagogues of the Golan (Korazim is not in the Golan but is very close) where it seems that in later centuries some of these symbols were absorbed as by this time they had become simply decorative, without religious meaning.
A short distance away was the site of Domus Galilaeae. Opened by Pope John Paul II in 2000, it is a place for young men training to be Catholic priests to come for a period as part of their studies. The centre focuses on understanding the Hebrew and Jewish traditions of the early Christians who were based in the area; an idea that to live authentic Christianity one must understand its Jewish roots. Students study Hebrew and engage in interfaith dialogue. The building is beautiful and has a stunning view over the Sea of Galilee. We were also treated to a concert by some of the students who sang for us in Hebrew.
Our final stop of the day was at Tel Mutilla, located in the modern village of Almagor. We learned about the 1949 ceasefire agreement with Syria following the War of Independence, and the ensuing complications in three ‘demilitarised’ zones where the interpretation of ‘demilitarised’ was disputed. Visiting the memorial to the soldiers who died in an unexpected battle with Syrians in 1951 (which fortunately did not escalate further), we enjoyed the sunset over the Sea of Galilee before heading home to Tel Aviv.
We ventured north for today’s tour, beginning with a long drive as we set out to explore the area of the southern Golan Heights. The weather forecast was not promising, with heavy storms (including thunder and lightning!) predicted, but the hardy folk of the tour guide course cannot be put off by such things, so we donned our waterproofs and thermals and mentally prepared ourselves for adverse conditions.
Our first stop of the day was at the hot springs at Hamat Gader. I had been here a couple of times previously, but had only bathed in the hot springs and visited the alligator park. Little did I know that there were antiquities to be found; indeed it seems that one of the reasons for this is that the owners of the site are in a dispute with the Antiquities Authority about responsibility for the ancient remains. As such they are currently closed off to visitors.
Still, a gate is not enough to put off intrepid future tour guides. Having been first told that we should not bring tourists here while it is closed (our insurance will not cover it!) we popped over the gate, to explore the very impressive ruins. We learned that this was the site of the 2nd largest bathhouse in the Roman Empire, and the structures that remain are quite remarkable. We discussed life in the bathhouse and the ancient tourism trade to the area, which stopped after the site was destroyed in a large earthquake in the 8th century.
It took the British in the 20th century to see the potential of the area for tourism, and since then (with a bit of a break after the Israeli Independence War – it ended up in the demilitarised zone between Israel and Syria, and right on the Jordanian border) the trade is roaring once more. Sadly there was no time for us to indulge in the hot springs!
From Hamat Gader, we ascended into the Golan Heights. Avid readers will recall that we explored the northern and central parts of the Golan during our campus in the summer, but there was still plenty to see. We began with a stunning viewpoint over the Sea of Galilee, called Mitzpe HaShalom (Peace Vista). We discussed the creation of the borders of Israel, and enjoyed the dramatic view with the storm clouds sweeping towards us (although fortunately, not yet reaching us).
We then travelled further north to the 2nd temple period settlement of Gamla. So named because of its similarity to a camel hump (gamal is the Hebrew for camel), it was the site of a major battle in the Jewish revolt against Roman rule. Gamla was lost to history until it was discovered in the late 60s, after Israel had taken the Golan Heights in the Six Day War.
The story of Gamla is a brave last stand followed by a tragic massacre, not dissimilar to many other sites where Jews tried to rebel against the great Roman army. We didn’t make it down to the archaeological site which contains one of the oldest synagogues in the world, but had a good viewpoint over it as our guide read to us from the story of the battle from Josephus. The site also has a large population of large birds of prey, including the huge Griffon Vulture. We went to a look out over their nesting area and saw them soaring above us. Not too close, fortunately!
Our final stop of the day was at Umm el Kanatir, also now known as Rechavam’s Arches after Rechavam Zeevi, whose last act as Tourism Minister was to approve this project. Excavators discovered the remains of a Jewish settlement here from the Byzantine period, including a grand synagogue. Unusually, because of the site’s relatively remote location, all the stones of the original structure are still in situ. Using a computer programme and complex ultrasound techniques, the stones were all mapped into a virtual jigsaw and are now being painstakingly reconstructed. They hope to open the site in a couple of years and it already looks impressive. It is remarkable to see an original ark from 1500 years ago!
With the sun setting over the distant Sea of Galilee, and the serious rain clouds vast approaching, it was time to begin the long journey back to Tel Aviv. Next week we follow in the footsteps of those trying to break the siege of Jerusalem in 1948. Stay tuned!